Morsel Combat

By Carmen Nobel | Boston Magazine |

On a sunny Thursday in April, sporting a natty jacket, a pocket handkerchief, and a hardhat, François-Laurent Nivaud mimes his way through a dusty, sprawling construction site on the North End’s Battery Wharf. “This will be the cocktail bar,” he says, pointing toward an arc of orange paint on the concrete floor. Over there, the top-of-the-line Bonnet range; here, a 40-seat harborside patio.

Three years ago Nivaud, a real estate consultant, persuaded his friend, French chef Guy Martin, to open a restaurant in this space, part of a $295 million construction project that will include a five-star Regent Hotel and 104 luxury condos. It would be Martin’s American debut, and based not on Le Grand Véfour, the Paris restaurant for which he was awarded three Michelin stars, but on his more experimental Montparnasse haunt, Sensing. Known for its eclectic little dishes, called “snackings,” as well as its modish ambiance—an alabaster bar, large video projections of body parts—Sensing has an arty edge. Martin describes its Boston counterpart (also named Sensing) in equally arty language: The menu would be “evolutive,” combining local ingredients with international techniques—or, as an early press release breathlessly proclaimed, “cuisine extraordinaire.”

Thus emerges one of the most ambitious restaurant projects in Boston history. One of two, that is. Because meanwhile, less than a mile down the waterfront, on a scrappy block of Congress Street in Fort Point Channel, hometown restaurateur Barbara Lynch has been busy with the No. 9 Group’s biggest venture yet—a multitiered juggernaut occupying 15,000 square feet of former warehouse space, part of a larger luxury-condo development called FP3. “It’s huge,” Lynch says. “I’m going to need one of those Segways to get around.”

Launched in 2005 and scheduled to open in three stages beginning this summer, the $7.5 million project includes an upscale restaurant, a casual eatery, a gourmet shop, and a bar presided over by No. 9 vet John Gertsen. Everything from the fixtures to the appliances to the décor will be state-of-the-art. Even the ice will be extraordinary, produced in a Kold-Draft machine that fashions cubes according to precision size and shape specifications for different drinks.

Lynch and Martin aren’t competing with each other in any direct sense. But the timing leads to inevitable comparisons: two hot chefs, two ambitious plans, two opportunities to change the culinary landscape of the city. And two entrepreneurs, alas, confronting one newly crappy economy.

Handicapping the race for waterfront dining dollars might seem a cinch: smart money on the hometown sensation, not the beret-wielding outsider. Lynch’s string of successes here—No. 9 Park, then B & G Oysters and the Butcher Shop—should give her the edge. But a deeper look suggests circumstances that threaten to put the ball in Martin’s court.

For starters, there’s the matter of size. It’s one thing for Lynch to fill to capacity B & G’s roughly 900-square-foot space in the South End every night; it’s quite another to maintain a buzzy vibe in a 15,000-square-foot warehouse space in an unproven part of town, with negligible evening foot traffic. Sensing’s comparably modest 3,000-plus-square-foot dining room, by contrast, should draw walk-in traffic from the reliably bustling Hanover Street a few blocks away.

Then there’s the “regulars quotient,” or the number of diners who can be counted on to pop in for a weekday meal or two. As of May, Battery Wharf had sold about 60 percent of its residential units (list prices range from $675,000 to upward of $8 million); FP3 was right at 30 percent ($350,000 to $2.2 million). Add to that a dependable captive audience in the form of the hotel guests upstairs, and yet again Sensing would seem to have the advantage.

In terms of price point, it may be a wash. Both restaurateurs are playing their cards, and their cartes, close to the vest (“We’re not going to price the menu in euros and scare people away,” says Martin), but neither is poised to be one of the ubiquitous midprice eateries that have transfixed the city’s dining scene of late, and that will continue to charm recession-addled palates going forward. In November, No. 9 Park’s GM, Eli Feldman, hinted in the Globe that five- and nine-course meals would be available—not exactly the province of bargain hunters—and that Lynch’s celebrated prune-stuffed gnocchi, served with seared foie gras, would probably be on offer (an appetizer that, at least on Beacon Hill, goes for $19). Similarly, Martin’s “cuisine extraordinaire” likely has less in common with the $20 steak frites at Gaslight than with the 35-euro mains at Sensing’s Parisian namesake.

And then there’s the problem of hype—or, more specifically, the expectations attached to it. “You don’t want to have all this buzz and kill yourself in the first month or two,” Lynch says. “I’ve opened enough restaurants to know that.” Consider the cautionary tale of the InterContinental Boston’s Miel, also on the waterfront: a lavish 2006 opening party, a Michelin-starred French chef (Jacques Chibois). But six months later, it had failed to draw in the well-heeled and -quaffed from more-established foodie neighborhoods.

Tied as they are to major projects, neither Lynch nor Martin can avoid the publicity dance. Lynch, in particular, has been leveraged by the FP3 marketing machine to a breathtaking degree: Ask average Bostonians about Fort Point Channel, and they’re more likely to reference “that new Barbara Lynch place” than muster the actual streets that define the neighborhood. The on-site sales offices have long sported a larger-than-life-size portrait of Lynch. Meanwhile, Boston newspapers have been touting the Martin project since 2006.

Local restaurant industry observers are divided in their reckoning of Martin’s and Lynch’s chances of success. “They’ll be fine,” says Charlie Perkins, owner of the Boston Restaurant Group, a commercial real estate firm that specializes in selling and leasing restaurant space. “Guy is a celebrity chef. Barbara is a student of the industry. We’re just in a hiccup.” Perkins predicts that in spite of the lousy economy, not everyone will be affected the same way. “The fine dining restaurants and steakhouses are doing fine,” he says. “Maybe [business travelers] can’t buy $500 bottles of wine anymore, but they’ll still go out to dinner.”

Though not necessarily on the waterfront, notes Charlie Sarkis, head of the Back Bay Restaurant Group. “We’ve turned down lots of opportunities in that area,” says Sarkis, who counts Abe & Louie’s, Bouchée, and Papa Razzi among his member restaurants. “I just don’t see the traffic down there yet. I don’t think you have the base population—it’s too early.” And then, an ominous prediction: “I think there are going to be casualties.”

It’s all too easy to notice that both restaurants have missed their projected opening dates by several months. Sensing’s initial estimated launch date was May. As of press time, it had been pushed back to July. Last summer, Lynch spoke of a roll-out beginning in February. By April, construction had hardly begun.

Tardiness is par for the course in the restaurant business, even when the economy is booming, and not necessarily a sign of trouble. Still, such delays can feel a little like broken promises. And speaking of which, it remains to be seen whether S
ensing’s marketing campaign will be revised in light of Le Grand Véfour’s losing its third Michelin star in March. Either way, Bostonians anticipating lavish fare from a chef with three stars now must settle for one with merely two.

On a recent spring day, Jefferson Macklin, chief operating officer of the No. 9 Group, oversaw a small tour of the new property. The journey began in the spotless, gleaming sales offices of the FP3 condos, where he pointed out full-scale models of luxurious polished quartz kitchen countertops and porcelain tile baths. The journey into the restaurant space required more imagination (not to mention hardhats). It was already the middle of April, but Lynch’s grand vision still mostly comprised plywood, plaster, and spray-painted placeholders. “Here’s where you’ll have three couches to luxuriate on,” Macklin said, gesturing toward an empty spot on the plywood floor, near the entrance. He paused to shrug. “We haven’t started construction yet.”

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